In Greensboro, in college, in the best/worst apartment I ever had, my best/worst roommate and I were self-sequestered in our bedrooms. She was organizing a crate of records. I was pecking out edits on story for workshop. It was a rare moment without music, specifically loud, angry music, which was what we mostly listened to in those days.
When my roommate started singing, I thought it was a record. I’d never heard her sing unaccompanied, without singing along to a stereo or band in concert, which is to say I’d never really heard her sing. And she had the most beautiful voice, this pure, lilting soprano, from a person I associated so strongly with hard edges and fury. Like if Courtney Love opened her mouth and sounded like an angel. Which was not so far off base, because I recognized the song she sang, after a moment, as John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” as surprising a song choice as the voice itself.
I got up from my desk and stood in the corridor outside her room, watching as she sang and stacked records. “I didn’t know you could sing like that,” I said, finally. She scoffed. Like I should have known. I probably should have known. She said her parents used to play the song. We weren’t really speaking in those days, and there wasn’t much else to say, other than “Keep singing. Please.” But I didn’t. And she didn’t. And after a minute or to, she put on a noise record and we returned to status quo.
I haven’t listened to that much John Prine. Not because I don’t like him. He’s just one of those guys I just haven’t really gotten around to yet. Which is probably why that story, in particular, was what occurred to me last night when I heard the news about his bout with COVID. It kinda haunted me. Maybe because those days in the Best/Worst apartment felt, at that time, like the worst thing that had—that could– ever happened to me. I was broke, sad and lonely. I felt trapped by circumstance. But I was also young and in no particular danger from anything worse than the fallout from my own stupid decisions. And when I think back, I’m always surprised to remember how well I can recall the good parts—the moments of silliness, curiosity, happiness, and like, the wild revelation that my punkest of punk rock roommates sang like Emmylou Harris—versus the bad.
The COVID-haunted world I find myself in is several orders of magnitudes worse than that one. Yet I know, when, if , I make it through all this, I’m more likely to remember the almost breezy peace of sitting at my desk on a warm spring Monday, listening to old Wilco records and watching a squirrel do some hilarious upside down acrobat shit in the oak branches out the windows, as I am the precise feel of the worried stomach aches or fidgety boredom or the way the despair can jolt like an electric shock when combined with existential fear.
I hope we don’t forget all the critically important stuff we’re learning about ourselves, our communities, and our systems. I hope we can put those things to good use in the years to come. I hope we never forget that this happened and how this happened. I hope we don’t forget that people we lose and the people that did everything they could to save them. I hope we do whatever we have to make that when something like it comes again (and it will) we’ll be better prepared.
But I’m really looking forward to losing track of the details, being able to describe in years hence the quality of the light instead of the intensity of the dark. Maybe I’ll even get a touch of afterglow contact high from the memory of standing barefoot in the 1am moonlight, on a stupid perfect spring last night, listening to the frogs on the pond and “Angel from Montgomery” on my headphones in the middle of a plague, thinking that I should have probably told my best/worst roommate that she had the most exquisite singing voice.
Picture today is of my bedroom in best/worst apartment, which, in retrospect, looks pretty cheery for the prison I thought it was at the time. As of this writing, 158,527 people have recovered from COVID-19.